Sometimes I think I’m good and sometimes I think I’m bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know what stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, "Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt."
"Künt," I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. "With an umlaut," I explained.
"Umlaut." I poked two fingers into the air, as though blinding an invisible man. "Two dots over the U. It’s a German name."
He frowned at my records. "Says here you were born in Rye, New York."
"Yes, sir," I said. Wry, New York.
"Makes you a U.S. citizen," he said, and peered at me through his wire-framed spectacles, challenging me to deny it.
"My parents came from Germany," I said. "In nineteen thirty-seven."
"But you were born right here." He bunk-bunked a fingertip on his desktop, as though to suggest I’d been born in this office, on that desk.
"I’m not denying American citizenship," I said.
"I should think not. Wouldn’t do you any good if you did."
I felt the confusion was now coming to a natural end, and that nothing I said would be useful, so I remained silent. Warden Gadmore frowned at me a few seconds longer, apparently wanting to be sure I didn’t have anything else contentious to say, and then lowered his head to study my records some more. He had a round bald spot on the top of his head, like a small pancake on a dead hedgehog. It was a very serious head.
Everything here was serious: the warden, the office, the very fact of the prison itself. I relished seriousness now, I felt it was long overdue in my life. It seemed to me that jail was going to do me a lot of good.
The warden took a long time over my records. I spent a while reading his name on the brass nameplate on his desk: Warden Eustace B. Gadmore. Then I spent a further while looking around this small crowded office at the black filing cabinets and the photographs of government officials on the institutional green walls and the rather disordered Venetian blinds raised over the large window behind the desk. Gazing over the warden’s bald spot and through that window I could see a kind of smallish garden out there, completely enclosed by stone walls. A fat old man in prison denim was at work in the gray November air, wrapping burlap around the shrubs bordering the garden. A narrow rectangular brick path separated shrubs and grass from the inner flower bed, at this time of year full of nothing but dead stalks. Next spring, I thought, I’ll see those flowers bloom. It was, all in all, a comforting idea.
Warden Gadmore lifted his head. When he peered up at me through his glasses I could no longer see his bald spot. "We don’t tolerate practical jokers here," he said.
"Yes, sir," I said.
Bunk-bunk; he prodded my records. "I don’t find this amusing reading," he said.
"No, sir." Wanting to reassure him, I added, "I’m cured, sir."
"Cured?" He squinted, as though to hide his eyes from me behind his cheekbones. "You mean you used to be crazy?"
Was that what I meant? "Not exactly, sir," I said.
"There wasn’t any insanity plea at the trial," he said.
"No, sir. I wasn’t crazy."
"I don’t know what you were," he said. Bunk-bunk. "You injured a number of people."
"Including three children."
"Yes, sir." And two Congressmen, though neither of us mentioned that.
He frowned at me, squinted at me, strained toward me without quite moving from his seat. In his fussy way he was on my side; he wanted to understand me, so he could understand what was wrong with me, so he could fix it.
I said, "I’ve learned my lesson, sir. I want to be rehabilitated."
The guard standing back by the door, the one who had walked over with me from the Orientation Center where I had spent my first night here at Stonevelt Penitentiary, shifted his weight in his big black gunboat shoes, expressing by the creak of his movements his disdain and distrust. He’d heard that line before.
Bunk-bunk. Warden Gadmore gazed past me, thinking. I gazed past him, watching the old gardener outside, who was now calmly peeing on a shrub. Finished, he zipped himself and wrapped the same shrub in burlap. A warm winter.
"Against advice from several quarters..."
Startled, I refocused on Warden Gadmore, who was frowning at me again, waiting to capture my attention. "Yes, sir," I said.
"Against, as I say," he said, "advice from several quarters, I have decided to give you a work assignment here. I don’t know if you appreciate what that means."
I looked alert and appreciative.
"It means," he said, looking very solemn, "that I’m giving you a break. Very few individuals prefer to sit around their cells all day with nothing to do, but we only have work for about half our inmates. New men usually have to prove themselves before they get a work assignment."
"Yes, sir," I said. "I see. Thank you."
"I’m taking a chance on you, Kunt," he said, pronouncing it wrong again, "because you don’t fit any of our normal categories of prisoner." He began to check them off on his fingers, saying, "You aren’t a professional criminal. You ar—"
"No, sir," I said.
"—en’t a radical. You did—"
"—n’t, uh." He looked slightly exasperated. "You don’t have to say, ‘No, sir,’ every time," he said.
"No, sir," I said, and immediately bit my lower lip. He looked down at my records again, as though he’d been reading from them aloud, though he hadn’t been. "Where was I?"
"I’m not a radical," I suggested.
"Exactly." Nodding seriously at me, checking the items on his fingers again, he said, "You didn’t commit a crime of passion. You aren’t here because of drugs. You’re not an embezzler or an income tax evader. None of our standard prisoner categories fits your case. In one way of looking at things, you aren’t an actual criminal at all."
Which was true enough. What, after all, had I done? I had parked a car on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway on a Sunday afternoon in early May. That, however, was an argument which had already been rejected at my trial, so I didn’t pursue it now. I merely looked eager and innocent, ready to accept whatever decision Warden Gadmore might choose to make.
"So I’m assigning you," he said, "to license plates."
Vision of self adorned with license plates, fore and aft; obviously not what he meant. "Sir?"
He understood that I didn’t understand. "We manufacture license plates here," he said.
"I’m assigning you," he said, sneaking another quick look at my records to see where he was assigning me, "to the packaging shop, where the plates are enveloped and boxed."
Solitude in a cell must be worse than I’d imagined. "Thank you, sir," I said.
Another look at my records. "You’re eligible for parole," he told me, "in twenty-seven months."
"If you’re sincere about rehabilitation—"
"Oh, I am, sir."
"Obey our rules," he said. "Avoid bad companions. This could prove the most beneficial two years of your life."
"I believe that, sir."
He gave me a quick suspicious look. My eagerness was perhaps a little more fervent than he was used to. He chose not to press the point, though, but merely said, "Good luck, then, Kunt." (With an umlaut, I thought, but didn’t say.) "If you behave yourself, I won’t see you in this office again until you’re discharged."
He nodded past me at the guard, saying, "All right, Stoon." Then, looking down at his desk as though I’d already left his office, he closed the file of my records and tossed it into a half-full tray on the corner of his desk.
Prison etiquette requires that the guards hold the doors for the inmates. Pretending not to know that, moving quickly while pretending to move slowly, I reached the doorknob before Guard Stoon. The chewing gum I’d been packing motionless in my left cheek I quickly palmed while turning, and pressed it to the underside of the knob as I pulled the door open. It’s a brand of gum which, so long as all the flavor hasn’t been chewed out of it, remains semi-moist and gooey for half an hour or more after leaving the chewer’s mouth.
I had opened the door, but Stoon gruffly gestured me to precede him. I did, knowing he would only be touching the knob on the other side while closing the door, and the two of us left the office building and headed across the hard dirt prison yard toward my new home.
Copyright © 1974 by Donald E. Westlake.